‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ Pilot Recap: “There’s Only Room for One Goddess at a Time”

I guess ‘American Feud Story’ wouldn’t have sounded right as a title. Producer Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology drama combines a little bit of horror with a little true crime to detail some of history’s most scandalous rivalries. The first season of ‘Feud’ centers on the notorious grudge match between Hollywood icons Joan Crawford and Bette Davis on the set of their camp classic ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?‘.

Professional rivals for decades, Bette and Joan famously couldn’t stand each other. Nevertheless, in the twilights of their careers and struggling to find work in a youth-obsessed industry, the two actresses joined forces to star in a low-budget horror thriller about a pair of sisters who are also, not coincidentally, aging has-been actresses who loathe one another. The appeal of the two Oscar-winning screen superstars working together for the first time, combined with the over-the-top hysterics of the movie itself, proved to be a recipe for success. The film was a box office hit that returned both women to relevance for a time. According to legend, the drama that went on behind the scenes matched anything caught on camera.

The TV show about this story is a star-studded affair in which modern-day famous people play exaggerated versions of other famous people. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, both former Oscar winners who know a thing or two about how Hollywood treats and discards women after a certain age, star as Crawford and Davis respectively. Sarandon’s body type is all wrong for Bette Davis, but the makeup job she wears combined with some difficult facial contortions result in an almost frightening resemblance at times.

Alfred Molina plays Robert Aldrich, the director caught between these two petulant divas while desperately struggling to pull off a comeback hit. Stanley Tucci is Jack Warner, the studio head who agreed to release the picture even while utterly detesting Bette. Judy Davis is infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, constantly trying to dig up dirt and egg on the conflict between the two women. In flash-forwards to many years after-the-fact, Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) are interviewed about what they know of the feud.

The pilot episode opens with a very playful credits sequence done in the style of Saul Bass, which is both amusing but also a little perplexing given that ‘Baby Jane’ did not have credits like this. The story starts at the 1961 Golden Globe Awards, as Joan drunkenly stumbles out of the ceremony muttering curses about Marilyn Monroe (face unseen). Later, she’ll give an ill-considered interview to Hopper in which she opens up with her true feelings about the young starlet.

Following the death of her fourth husband, Pepsi-Cola chairman Al Steele, Crawford’s career is in the doldrums and her remaining fortune is dwindling. She resorts to begging her agent for work, but he can’t find any projects for a woman of her age that she finds acceptable. As a result, she goes searching for one herself, until she eventually comes across a trashy pulp novel that she believes has the potential to make a successful movie with two very juicy lead roles for herself and another star of equal magnitude. Although she dislikes the woman immensely, she recognizes that Bette Davis would be perfect for the second lead. Their pairing could get the picture made, and the longstanding rumors about their enmity would even play into the movie’s subject matter.

Joan finds Bette working on Broadway, playing a supporting role that they both feel is beneath her stature as a star. (That the play is a Tennessee Williams drama that will be regarded as a classic is of no concern. Bette Davis deserves better.) Bette is skeptical of Joan’s motives but, eager to get back to Hollywood, reads the book and concedes to sign on.

Most of the premiere episode deals with the slow build-up of simmering resentments between the two women. They jockey for position as the primary lead. Joan is furious that Bette’s contract promises a slightly higher pay rate for daily expenses. Bette bristles at Joan’s incessant shilling of Pepsi everywhere they go, carrying a bottle at every photo op and installing a Pepsi machine outside her dressing room. Each is critical of the other’s character choices regarding wardrobe and makeup. This comes to a head on the first day of principal photography, during which Bette reveals her final character design as a grotesque caricature of Joan herself. Aldrich and the crew think this is brilliant and applaud as soon as they see it. (Indeed, it serves a dual purpose of reflecting her character’s psychotic jealousy while also being a pointed dig at her co-star.) In the background, Joan seethes with anger.

This is just the start of the war to come. Things will get much nastier before production wraps.

Episode Verdict / Grade: B

Despite its acclaim and ratings success, one of the reasons I couldn’t get into Ryan Murphy’s ‘People vs. O.J. Simpson‘ miniseries is that I found its stunt-casting of numerous celebrities playing other celebrities to be distracting and, frankly, almost cartoonish at times (especially the performances by John Travolta and David Schwimmer). This show has much the same issue, but at least the conceit feels less inappropriate here. ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ is a very campy movie, so bringing some camp to a story about it is probably the right decision. I’m sure that fans of that movie, as well as those who worship Joan Crawford and/or Bette Davis as camp icons, will find a lot to enjoy here.

If anything, I’m a little disappointed that the premiere feels somewhat flat and pedestrian in its approach to the material. Murphy (who directed as well as produced) could have, and perhaps should have, really gone for broke with the melodrama and hysterics. Then again, maybe I’m just not giving him enough credit and he’s planning to amp that up as the show goes on.

The series seems to be based almost entirely on the legends passed down about the women’s feud. I have no idea how much of it is true to what actually happened. Probably not much. The way the show portrays their relationship as directly corresponding to their characters in the movie is undoubtedly heavily fictionalized for entertainment purposes.

Of course, this is not the first bio project to disparage Joan Crawford. The 1981 movie version of ‘Mommie Dearest’, based on her daughter’s scathing tell-all book, painted the actress as a living nightmare. I have very mixed feelings about the fact that projects like these two are the way future generations are likely to remember her, ignoring her outstanding work in movies like ‘Mildred Pierce’.

The FX network is so bullish on this show that it already ordered a second season before a single episode aired. The ‘Bette and Joan’ arc will run for seven episodes this year. Season 2 will focus on the rocky marriage and divorce of England’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

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